LEWISTON, Idaho — Cargo barges sail serenely between Portland and Lewiston, Idaho, the most inland seaport on the West Coast.
But rough waters may lie ahead, because some environmental activists oppose the federal government’s latest plan to dredge a shipping channel on the lower Snake River. Dredging is necessary every few years to keep the channel in front of the Port of Lewiston deep enough for barges.
Critics say the Lewiston seaport — located 465 miles from the Pacific Ocean in a deep Idaho gorge — suffers from declining business and dredging amounts to a huge taxpayer subsidy to shippers.
“Costs are rising, use is dropping and taxpayers won’t continue to foot this bill,” said Sam Mace of Save Our Wild Salmon, one of a coalition of environmental groups who in late March submitted comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opposing dredging.
Navigation from the Pacific Ocean to Lewiston is possible because the federal government in the 1960s and 1970s built four massive hydroelectric dams, equipped with locks, on the upper Snake River. The reservoirs keep water levels high enough for barging. Environmental groups for years have tried unsuccessfully to remove the dams to restore runs of wild salmon that were decimated when the huge concrete structures blocked migration routes.
But barge traffic has many supporters, including the Port of Lewiston, which receives grain from as far away as the Dakotas. The grain is barged to Portland, where it is loaded on cargo ships bound for Asia. The river highway carries other cargo, and even small cruise ships, up to Lewiston and adjacent Clarkston, which form a community of 50,000 people at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers.
The cargo barges are an incongruous sight on the Snake River, as they move past the bare brown hills of an arid and lightly populated farming region known as the Palouse.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is preparing an environmental impact statement for the dredging. The Corps says it is required by law to maintain a shipping channel that is 14 feet deep and 250 feet across, spokesman Bruce Hendrickson said. Barges can get grounded on sediment if the channel is not dredged.
The coalition of environmental groups, which tried and failed to halt the dredging the last time it occurred in 2005-06, recently submitted comments in which they contended the Corps is not seriously looking at alternatives to dredging.
“Dredging is a foregone conclusion,” the environmental groups contended. The Corps should more seriously consider alternatives that don’t require dredging, such as loading barges with less cargo, stopping shipping during low water periods or diverting more cargo to rail and truck transport, the groups said.
The Corps will consider all comments before issuing a final decision this summer. The earliest the dredging could occur is next winter, Hendrickson said.
The Corps has not estimated how much dredging would cost, because it will be collecting bids to perform the work and federal rules prevent it from setting a price before that. Critics estimate the dredging will cost millions of dollars. The Corps wants to dredge more than 470,000 cubic yards of sediment near the confluence of the two rivers. The sediment would be used to create habitat for salmon and steelhead.
“Generally dredging is expected to keep the river open for five years,” Hendrickson said.
While critics argue that the cost of the dredging is not justified by the economic benefits of the barging, the Corps did not perform a cost-benefit analysis because that is not its mission, Hendrickson said.
“Dredging is the only effective, short-term tool available to restore the navigation channel,” Hendrickson said.
The Corps also questions critics who contend that barging can be easily replaced by train and truck transport.
“A barge is still equal to 35 railroad hopper cars or 134 trucks on the road, creating pollution,” Hendrickson said. “Barging is a very efficient and non-polluting way to move cargo up and down the river.”
There’s no question that business has dropped at the Port of Lewiston, which opened in 1974.
In 2000, the Port of Lewiston shipped more than 900,000 tons of grain, a number that declined to just over 500,000 tons in 2012, according to Port statistics. The number of containers shipped was more than 16,000 in 2000, and had dropped to around 5,000 by 2012.
“Business is down because of the national recession,” Port general manager David Doeringsfeld said.
The economy and the port’s business is rebounding, he said. “Business is up 88 percent so far this year,” Doeringsfeld said.
The Port of Lewiston lies at the tail end of the reservoir of Lower Granite Dam. When the Snake and Clearwater rivers merge at Lewiston and then collide with the slackwater, sediment settles on the river bottom. This requires dredging every few years to keep the port deep enough for fully loaded barges to operate.
Doeringsfeld said they are already “light loading” grain barges because the water is only 11 feet deep in some places. Barges can be loaded much heavier when the water is 14 feet deep, he said.
Grain is the port’s biggest export product, with a majority grown within a 100-mile radius. But 15 percent of the grain comes from Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas, he said. In addition to barges filled with grain, the port ships containers full of wood and paper products, peas, lentils, beans and some wheat, Doeringsfeld said.
All of the grain shipped from Lewiston to Portland is sent to Asia, he said.
Linwood Laughy of Kooskia, a major dredging opponent, has conducted his own studies showing costs of keeping the river open amount to a subsidy of thousands of dollars per barge leaving the Port of Lewiston. He estimated it costs $30 million to $40 million per decade to maintain the shipping channel.
“Nothing on the horizon suggests any significant increase in shipping,” he said.
But Doeringsfeld disputed the concept of comparing costs of dredging to the amount of shipping.
“This is a maintenance project for a U.S. marine highway,” Doeringsfeld said.
Even with reduced business, the Port moves an enormous amount of cargo, he said.
A single barge contains 100,000 bushels of grain, worth nearly $1 million, Doeringsfeld said. The port shipped 220 barges of grain last year, he said.
But Laughy said dredging primarily benefits the Port of Lewiston, and loss of the facility would not be a great economic blow.
“The Port of Lewiston employs six people and requires an annual local tax subsidy of $450,000,” Laughy said. “The Army Corps’ proposal for perpetual dredging … simply doesn’t make sense.”